Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

TOLSTOY: War and Peace, Part 3

Courage under pressure and good decision-making skills are two timeless virtues that never go out of style. Whether it’s pressure on the battlefield or in a peaceful social setting, the way a man responds in adverse circumstances reveals the content of his character. Tolstoy’s knowledge of human psychology is vast and he has an uncanny ability to reveal a person’s character by how well they respond under pressure. Pierre flunks the character test in the early going. His inability to choose a career may just be a reflection of his immaturity. But Tolstoy hints at a deeper flaw in Pierre’s soul through the sheer panic, almost paralysis, which infects Pierre when he’s trying to do something as basic as choosing a wife.

Of course this situation causes panic in many young men. Perhaps with good reason; this is a big step in any man’s life. He should be nervous about it. But when Pierre inherits a fortune his problems grow exponentially. His poor self-image can be exploited by others and Prince Vassily is a man made for exploitation. Like all fathers, Vassily wants his children to succeed in life. Unlike all fathers, he makes money virtually the only definition of success. Vassily has an unmarried daughter, Pierre has lots of money, so…

The truth of the matter is Pierre doesn’t love Ellen Vassily but he marries her anyway. Why? Who knows? Pierre himself sure doesn’t. It just seemed like the thing to do at the time. If he had just told the truth Pierre could have saved himself a lot of heartache. But he didn’t. Tolstoy points out that “To tell the truth is a very difficult thing; and young people are rarely capable of it.” Why does he think it’s difficult to tell the truth? Does Tolstoy believe it’s because we don’t know what the truth is, or that we do know but just don’t want to face reality? These are the kinds of questions a good artist can ask and yet not have to answer. That’s the purpose of philosophy, not of art. A philosopher might say A=B and B=C, therefore Pierre should not marry Ellen. End of story. An artist like Tolstoy says Pierre doesn’t love Ellen but he marries her anyway. Even Pierre doesn’t know why. Life’s messy that way. End of story.

A second way to approach truth artistically is for the novelist to shatter the illusions of a major character, especially of a strong character like Prince Andrey. Many readers think Andrey is arrogant. He may be, depending on one’s definition of arrogance. But regardless of definitions Andrey is a Bolkonsky through and through. He’s not as stern as his father, the old prince, but Andrey is almost painfully aware of his heritage. To shame the Bolkonsky name would be disgraceful. To win glory on the battlefield is Andrey’s one passionate goal in life. Glory is his most cherished truth and that truth is shattered in one crashing encounter with reality.

Andrey does, in fact, achieve a certain amount of glory. By grabbing his regiment’s flag and leading his faltering troops Andrey shows a courage and tenacity truly worthy of a Bolkonsky. The only problem is, once he’s wounded and sees the clouds floating in the sky, far above the fray of battle, Andrey’s whole perspective changes. What’s the use of all this fighting? When you get right down to it, what good is glory anyway? It’s at that point that Andrey realizes that he was happiest when he was back home on his estate in the country. His whole conception of happiness had been based on attaining some abstract reward called glory. The truth of the matter is we may be happier with the simple everyday rewards: clouds, the sky, gardens, other people, going home to dinner. A person’s whole life can get off track by following the wrong star. But how do you know if it’s the wrong star? Only time will tell and by then it may be too late. Sometimes life’s messy that way.

-- RDP


Blogger SMJ said...

Life is messy because people make it so. Nature in the wild is never messy. It is violent, bloody, and completely devoid of humor, but lacks all of the messy emotional strife which consumes the hearts and minds of our flawed human species. The belief that if we only told the truth then life would be less complicated is laughable. As Jack Nicholson yelled to Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men...."You want the truth? You can't handle the truth!" Most people abandon truth whenever the truth becomes too painful. Pierre doesn't know why he married Helene but he is very sure he doesn't love her. Sound familiar? It should. Many men and women make the same mistake all the time. You think you love someone, then later you realize you made a mistake. Love comes and goes like the billowing clouds in the sky. Of course, an ethereal feeling of love is one thing. The moral commitment of marriage is something else altogether. Once Pierre realizes he does not love Helene, he has to leave. He believes that Helene married him for his money (a correct assumption), so he leaves her plenty of it. But Pierre's trouble does not come from a lack of honesty. If anything, he is too honest. His problem is that he doesn't know what to do with himself. He inherited an estate which he has no ability or desire to manage. His wife is just another piece of that emotional baggage which must be jettisoned. Like other adolescents struggling to find themselves, Pierre has to go off in search of Truth.

For Prince Andre, the quest is more easily defined. Unlike Pierre, Andre is having no identity crisis. He knows exactly who he is and what is expected of him. Moreover, he knows that wasting time with idle chatter in the salons of Petersburg isn't for him. Going off to fight against Napoleon is his one chance for glory, just as it was, many centuries ago, for Agamemnon or Achilles. Not until he lies wounded on the battlefield does he once doubt his mission. His close brush with death seems to bring about an epiphany. He no longer believes in the war. But it is hard to imagine Andre going home to a life of endless soirees. He is no Prince Vassily or Nicholas Rostov. Society gossip and the company of men like Berg or Princess Helene do not interest him.

Andre's problem is that he survives the war and goes home to a wife who dies in childbirth. His guilt and sorrow plunge him into a cynical rejection of life with all its worldly complications. Is that any reason to assume the war against Napoleon was unjust or a waste of time? Hardly. It should be recalled that the war against France was not Russia's fault. Napoleon was the aggressor. So why pretend that it is somehow better to retire to one's estate and ignore the outcome of a war that jeopardizes all of Russia? Prince Andre fought bravely at Austerlitz, he was wounded and then went home. But this is by no means the end of the story. Andre, like Pierre (and, in fact, all of Russia) is following a path whose end will bring about vast changes in his personal life and in a world involving much more than his own individual suffering.

3/12/2008 2:14 PM  

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